Tuesday 26 September 2017

Treasures.... Putting money into the Banksy

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

'Grannies' by Banksy is to be auctioned at the RDS in Dublin.
'Grannies' by Banksy is to be auctioned at the RDS in Dublin.
Art by Martin Whatson

Eleanor Flegg

If you wake up one morning to find that someone's sprayed paint on your wall, step back and think twice before getting out the scrubbing brush. Because you might be in possession of a valuable piece of art.

Flash back around 10 years, when the witty stencils of street artist Will St Leger began to populate the streets of Dublin. He's best known for the one of the Madonna with a ghetto blaster. His 'Duty Free State' shows Michael Collins laden down with shopping bags from Prada and Chanel. It's simple, clever, provocative stuff. Over the years, a lot of St Leger's work went under the power washers.

Now, it's going under the hammer. Admittedly, the prices aren't huge. . . yet. Whyte's auction of Irish & International Art (www.whytes.ie), which takes place in the RDS on Monday, February 23, includes two prints by St Leger, each with a guide price of €300 to €500.

There are also works by a number of other street artists including Miss Bugs and Martin Whatson (guides €1,000 to €2,000). The transition from street art to collectible is an interesting one. The most famous street artist of the modern generation is, of course, the inimitable Banksy, whose work is also included in this auction along with that of several other street artists.

The Banksy pieces are both screen prints - 'Toxic Mary' (she's feeding her baby from a bottle marked with a skull and crossbones) and 'Grannies' (one is knitting a "Punks not Dead" jumper; the other is finishing the collar of "Thug for Life"). Each of these is guided between €2,000 and €3,000.

It's not a lot for a Banksy.

On January 28 a number of Banksy prints sold at Bonhams in London for between €27,582 and €43,463. They came from the collection of Steve Lazarides, Banksy's former agent. Lazarides was part of the mechanism that helped to keep Banksy's face out of the public eye while, very successfully, promoting his practice. Now Lazarides is working with other artists, including the Cork-born street artist Conor Harrington whose painting, 'Dance with the Devil' (2013) sold for €103,644 at the same auction. Wow (boy!).

Harrington's work is pretty cool. 'Dance with the Devil', in oil and spray paint on linen, looks like two men from a historic painting were teleported into a London nightclub in the middle of a duel, and just kept on fighting. It's like a fine art version of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. And Harrington still paints on walls, although these days he tends to ask permission first.

But how did an art form that originated in the streets - rebellious and free - end up in the auction rooms? In his 2010 film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy mocks the efforts of a mediocre street artist trying to hold an exhibition of saleable works. Now, Banksy's own work has become a very valuable commodity to be peddled at auction. His wall work has latterly been removed by angle grinder almost as soon as it goes up.

Does this mean that he's sold out? "I think he's just played it very well," says James Earley, a Dublin-based street artist (www.inputout.com). "A lot of people are just envious."

Another point is that street art is not the same as graffiti. Street art can be a form of social protest, but sometimes it's just decorative. Graffiti is all about tagging.

So if you find a stencil by Will St Leger on your garden wall, can you remove it and put it up for auction? "Well," says Adelle Hughes of Whyte's cautiously, "you'd have to demonstrate that it was your wall in the first place, and then you'd have to show that you were authorised to take it down. And then we'd have to be certain about the authorship…" No reputable auctioneer can sell anything without knowing that it's authentic and knowing its provenance.

Pest Control, the arm of the Banksy Empire that authenticates his prints, refuses to authenticate his street works. One reason is that the artist's intention is that the piece remains on the street. This makes sense. In 2013 London residents protested at the removal of a Banksy stencil called 'Slave Labour'. It showed a barefoot and downtrodden child making Union Jacks on a sewing machine and it's placement on the wall of a pound shop probably was part of its meaning. But the "Bring Back our Banksy" brigade may have been aware that their freely acquired artwork wasn't doing their property prices any harm either. Problem was, it was difficult to work out who actually owned it.

Another reason that Banksy doesn't authenticate illegal work is that it would be like signing a confession. It's all very well to romanticise street art, but getting caught is no fun at all. James Earley, for example, no longer works illegally.

With a young family to support and bills to pay, he now makes street art to commission, like the spectacular floral façade of Bloom's Hotel in Dublin, completed last year. Street art hasn't sold out - it's just grown up and had kids.

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